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Notes on the Geography of The West Bank: Bethlehem

Like almost any city you can name, Bethlehem over the last century has grown hugely, both in population and physical size. The historic core is proportionally smaller than the hole of a donut, but it's probably the only part that visitors find attractive.

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The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 1

Old Bethlehem is composed of stone-block buildings draped over an east-projecting ridge on a broader slope trending down toward the Dead Sea. Streets run on the contour, intersected by staircases and one cross-ridge road that traverses the square in front of the Church of the Nativity. The staircases separate the large houses once built to provide separate quarters for extended families. Probably none of these structures does so today: each building (or hosh) is known by the name of the family that built it, but the occupants are almost entirely renters, protected by a Jordanian rent-control law. As such laws often do elsewhere, this law almost guarantees that the buildings will fall to pieces before the owners put money into maintenance.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 2

Typically, the "hosh" is a rectangular block with a courtyard and apartments arrayed around it. It's a much more Westernized--Cartesian--layout than the irregular structures of old Hebron, but since the Crusades Bethlehem has been much more Westernized than Hebron.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 3

Close to the Church of the Nativity, this corner belongs to somebody who wants to care for it, but the mortar appears to be concrete, not lime. That's a mistake, because concrete doesn't breathe, and so moisture will accumulate behind the wall, which has a rubble core from which moisture must be allowed to escape. The prognosis: cracks.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 4

A corner of a wall separates. Can moisture be the culprit, trapped behind the cement used on the wall on the left?

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 5

Wood is prodigiously scarce in these parts, which is why the ceiling of the nave of the Church of the Nativity is perhaps more unusual than any other part of that building.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 6

Bethlehem has nothing like a shopping center in the usual sense of that phrase. It does have dozens of shops operating from ground-floor openings in buildings in the newer parts of the town. It also has a traditional market opened by the British about 1930 and recently rebuilt as part of the millennium makeover. Before 1930, the market was the open space of Manger Square. Here, next to the British-built market, a cobbler.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 7

The plaque unveiled in 1929 to mark the opening of the British-built public market. There aren't many such plaques to be found on the West Bank, but then the British weren't here very long.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 8

Bethlehem also has a large modern oil-pressing mill as well as the ruins of old stone ones. Here is an intermediate technology in a small mill in the neighboring village of Beit Jala. It's located in a small building adjoining a mansion built by a family whose sons had moved to Chile and prospered. The fortune was dissipated, but the mansion and press survive. Here, the olives have been neatly stacked on disc-like mats. The stack will be compressed as a hydraulic plunger rises from the floor.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 9

The same load, but with the stack compressed. The trickling oil glistens as it drains into the plastic bucket.

The West Bank: Bethlehem picture 10

Down the hill, the modern mill, with Italian equipment, occupies a large building full of stainless steel. It's a cold place, but the villagers come in and, in the traditional way, wait for hours until their oil is ready. They take it in plastic cans, though until a few decades ago they used large clay pots called jarra. A corruption from the English "jar"? Nope: other way around. The English word "jar" comes from the Arabic.


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